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'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' Director on Working With Oprah and the "Draining" Emotional Scenes


George C. Wolfe says some of the biggest challenges entailed working in 95-degree heat and “incredibly intense emotional days” on set.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has at its origin a set of cells, taken from an African-American tobacco farmer in 1951 without her knowledge or consent, that would go on to revolutionize medical research. But while these “immortal” organisms helped give rise to pharmaceuticals that could combat diseases like cancer and AIDS, the woman from whom they came was never given her due. Based on the true story, the plot unfolds through the eyes of Lacks’ daughter Deborah (played by Oprah Winfrey) and Rebecca Skloot, the journalist (played by Rose Byrne) who authored the 2010 best-selling source book, as the two team up to search for the truth.

Also starring Renee Elise Goldsberry, Courtney B. Vance and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, it nabbed an Emmy nomination for best television movie. Director George C. Wolfe, who also has helmed the feature Nights in Rodanthe and won two Tonys, tells THR about leaning on his prolific theater career for this project, working with Winfrey and managing to capture such a complicated, charged story within a 90-minute movie.

What first drew you to helm the adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

There are stories that have great characters, there are stories that are about the world that you live in, and then there are stories that are intimate and compelling — they touch you. Henrietta Lacks had all of that. It is rare, but so wonderful when it happens. The characters are amazing, there’s an intimacy to the story, and the scale of what it’s about and how it affects the world that we’re living in right now were all in one room. So I was excited and honored that I got the opportunity to live inside of that room and work on material like that.

This story [captured] this incredibly odd phenomenon of these people who knew nothing about what happened to their mother’s and their cells, and they incorporated — well, they had to for their own sanity — that craziness into their normal existence. Deborah doesn’t know the truth, but she knows something happened, and she’s perpetually looking for the truth everywhere. She’s really fascinating once you realize how smart she is, how imaginative she is, and how ferociously determined she is to find out.

Were you familiar with the book before being approached about the project?

When the book first came out, I read it and found it so thrilling. It’s an ambitious book with a complicated, intimate story. One of the things a good writer does is put the drama in the details. I found the epic nature of it really wonderful. When working on the film, I knew I had to create a balance between epic and intimate, and that became the fun challenge.

What was the toughest part about executing that vision?

It was a fascinating challenge to figure out a way to keep the story intimate. To me, that was focusing on Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who has a deeply primal desire — like most of us — to know who made us. That was very important. Then it was really understanding that every single thing that happened — from Henrietta’s story to the science — was part of her journey.

Also, it was very interesting to read the book and have that be a source of truth, and then have the writer, Rebecca, share the original tapes she had [recorded] when conducting the interviews, to hear the actual family of Henrietta Lacks, to hear their tone and rhythm in how they spoke. The word and the voice are just so violently different. It’s one of the dangers of email. That difference altered the truth in some respect, and things became more and more layered.

What were some of the big challenges on set?

Every day in Atlanta was 95 degrees — your skull becomes a microwave and your head gets cooked, literally. I’ve never experienced anything like that. We’d have a scene at a gas station, which would be the simplest thing, but because of the heat, it’d feel monumental. Weird little moments would become overwhelming. Then, incredibly intense emotional days when Deborah and Rebecca — Oprah and Rose — were having some of their rawest moments were long and draining days, but somehow everybody was up for the occasion, and it happened effortlessly.

Filming in Baltimore was really interesting because it’s neither the North nor South, but both. It’s very urban and has a lot of money, but at the same time it has many areas that are desolate. I felt like I was in three or four different Americas at the same time. You felt this incredible sense of Southern warmth, and you’d drive a little bit and then there’d be a street where all the buildings were boarded up and there would just be one family living there, and then you’d go downtown and you’d be in an incredible, sophisticated, up-and-coming neighborhood. That was really culturally and politically fascinating.

What struck you about working with Oprah?

There was a fearlessness about the work. Wherever the scene required her to go, she would go seemingly without caution. I think she felt such an incredible responsibility to Deborah and her truth that she didn’t allow anything internal to stop her from going there. And she just had an incredible sense of adventure and fun. Even when it was hard, it always felt fun. Even when she was like, “They ripped my guts out, they stole my mother’s cells, and everybody in the family was violated and abused,” she’d have a sense of excitement and adventure about the work.

What from your theater background helped you?

I love working with actors and creating a work environment where they feel empowered and safe to go to as many dark corners as they need to be able to do the work. Throughout the time I’ve spent working in theater, I’ve worked with astonishing actors — some at the very beginnings of their careers, some very accomplished. And as a result, I’ve learned how to create an environment of safety and trust that allows them to play in dangerous, thrilling places. I take great pride in that.

What are you working on next?

I’m doing some writing — a screenplay and a play. I immediately started scouting locations [for Henrietta Lacks] a week after my musical Shuffle Along opened on Broadway, so I’ve been missing my writer self after all that directing.

But I’m involved in some talks about figuring out how to, for lack of a better word, celebrate its journey, which was an astonishing one. Working on it was an extraordinary experience, and the loss of it was extraordinary. And the memory of it. Everything about that show — there was nothing “wading pool” about it. Its journey was like going to the ocean, everything was so deep and complicated and beautiful and dark. I felt so deeply connected to that show in an astonishing way. I created a show about a show that didn’t last, and then the show didn’t last. And it should have. And literally once a week, three to five people come up to me [to talk about it]. I don’t know, I’m just trying to figure it out.

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The Wizard of Lies (HBO)

Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer elevate this biopic about the world’s most notorious Ponzi schemer.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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'Big Little Lies': Nicole Kidman on Her Hopes for Celeste in Season 2


“We have to instigate the change ourselves,” Kidman said about needing to have more female filmmakers working in film and her promise to work with them every 18 months.

In the past year, Nicole Kidman could be seen everywhere — from the big to the small screen. Nominated for an Emmy for best actress in a limited series or a television movie for her work in HBO’s Big Little Lies, Kidman also starred in three films that played at the Cannes Film Festival (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled) and, along with Big Little Lies, appears on the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.

Just before she took off for Australia to begin shooting Aquaman in late July, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Kidman about her busy year and what she’d hope for Celeste (who fought to regain her freedom from an abusive husband in the first season) if Big Little Lies does return for another season.

What surprised you the most about the way your character was received?

I was just amazed at how people emotionally responded to her, really felt protective and attached to her. The thing with Celeste and the way in which her story unfolds — it takes time in a series. So initially I think people were like “Hmm, OK” — it’s not until the end of episode two where you start to delve and dig deep into her psyche. A lot of it was more just taking the time, waiting.

What was the biggest challenge for you when it comes to how Celeste changed over the season?

Probably the hardest part of doing a limited series is shooting out of sequence. You have to track the emotional arc of the character over seven hours, whereas in a film you have a much shorter amount time to do that. So that’s probably the most difficult thing is knowing where you’re at for each scene so that you’re really building—and particularly a character like Celeste where you’re only peeling back layers at different times and you’re only getting glimpses of who she really is—that was a high wire act.

If there is a season two, what do you hope for Celeste?

I would like to see her heal, of course. But there’s the idealized version and then there’s the truthful version. Her life had an enormous amount of truth in it even though it was wrapped in a very sort of I suppose sugary, frosty kind of presentation. When you dig underneath that, the truth is what’s compelling and scary at times — sort of rigorously honest. I would hope that that’s the way we would continue to take it.

You spoke in Cannes about your intention to work with a female director every 18 months. You have Rebecca Miller’s film coming up but who else would you like to work with?

I’m already circling some things. But until they’re really happening I try not to say, but I’ve got my eye on a few — or they’ve sought me out. So it’ll be very easy to keep that. I know so many women who are directing now. And there will not be a problem. And I’m very happy to do it because I want to. I keep saying as much as we all talk about it, we have to do it. We have to instigate the change ourselves. And I always say statistically it’s still really bad. I’d love to go “oh it’s all so different suddenly in the 18 months or two years that we’ve been having these discussions it’s all flipped and you know Wonder Woman with Patty Jenkins did it and it’s all roses now.” It’s not. And that needs to be emphasized, not because it’s negative but because we have to keep working toward it. No one can rest on their laurels, and everyone has to keep working together to instigate the change.

This past year seems to have been one of the busiest of your career.

I did four projects last year. Insane. But actually, it was extraordinary. It will probably never happen again in my life. They were so different when you look at Big Little Lies and then Top of the Lake and then The Beguiled and Killing of a Sacred Deer. And just prior to that I did Photograph 51 on stage. So it was five things in a row that are just diametrically opposed. And that is for me as an actor is what I’ve always looked for, sought and desired, because I’ve always said I’m a character actor. I want to create characters. I also want to work with auteurs, and I got to do that. I mean, the strength alone of those directors and of what they represent, is — that was just an amazing year. This year I’ve really slowed down. I’ve been on holiday for four months. So much of being an actor is only what you’re given the opportunity. Big Little Lies was something we were able to create an opportunity for ourselves, but with the other things you’re waiting. You’re waiting for someone to say “hey, are you interested?” We’re very much on the receiving end as actors.



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Emmys: Breaking Down the Pros and Cons of Each Lead Actress Nominee


Courtesy of CBS

PRO Playing a recovering addict, she won supporting Emmys in two of the past three years. Now jumping to lead — as she did on The West Wing, after which she kept winning — she, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is poised to tie Cloris Leachman’s record of eight acting wins.

CON Janney’s show, unlike those of three fellow nominees, didn’t receive a series nom and, unlike all but one, is constricted by broadcast regulations.



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Emmys: How Comedy Shows Got Real About Diversity


“Peak TV,” fueled by pay cable and streaming shows, is serving up inclusion with a side of laughs.

An unprecedented number of this year’s Emmy-nominated programs center on characters who are something other than straight white males, which explains why so many of this year’s Emmy acting nominees also fit that description. This development is noteworthy in and of itself, but what’s particularly interesting, to me, is that a majority of these programs are comedies.

Each of this year’s seven nominees for best comedy series — FX’s Atlanta, ABC’s Black-ish and Modern Family, HBO’s Silicon Valley and Veep and Netflix’s Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — features protagonists who are people of color, immigrants or second-generation Americans, LGBTQ and/or women. Represented in the comedy acting categories are shows about trans people (Transparent), seniors (Grace and Frankie) and a substance abuser (Mom). One even features a man playing a woman (Baskets).

What’s this all about? Well, for one thing, there has been an explosion in TV programming of all sorts in the past few years — there are likely to be more than 500 scripted series in 2017, when all is said and done — hence the term “Peak TV.” But why is this specifically resulting in more — or at least more Emmy-embraced — diverse comedies than dramas?

“I think the definition of ‘TV comedy’ has really expanded,” says Silicon Valley actor Kumail Nanjiani (who also co-wrote and stars in this summer’s breakout indie, The Big Sick). “I mean that in a really good way. You don’t have to have a certain number of laughs per minute anymore, which allows these themes to be explored in a way that feels natural and allows the issues to breathe. Also, if you can make people laugh, they are more likely to engage. Dealing with these issues dramatically can feel didactic or medicinal; comedy allows people to laugh in the moment and think about the serious stuff later.”

Comedies featuring and/or about diversity are not new. They date back at least to the ’70s, with CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a revolutionary series about a “career woman,” and the game-changing brainchildren of Norman Lear, starting with CBS’ All in the Family, in which race is discussed and debated, and CBS’ Maude, which had a woman at its center, followed by three shows built around black families: NBC’s Sanford and Son, CBS’ Good Times and CBS’ The Jeffersons. These, in turn, helped to create a climate in the ’80s in which other sitcoms focused on women, such as NBC’s The Golden Girls and CBS’ Murphy Brown, and people of color, such as NBC’s The Cosby Show and A Different World, ABC’s Family Matters and NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — plus most of what showed up in the ’90s on The WB and UPN, like Moesha — could thrive.

More recent barrier-busters include NBC’s Will & Grace, the story of a gay man and straight woman who are BFFs (Joe Biden, in his endorsement of same-sex marriage, said the show “probably did more to educate the American public” on LGBTQ issues “than almost anything anybody has ever done so far”), and ABC’s Modern Family, which went on the air in 2009.

But even more than these broadcast shows, I would argue that the rise of pay cable and streaming services changed the game because they approach content creation in a totally different way: Rather than angling for the least objectionable offerings, they create a range of programming with the goal of appealing across the demographic spectrum, since just a single show can draw a fresh set of subscribers. That gave us HBO’s Sex and the City, which paved the way for Girls and similarly personal comedies that helped put the streamers on the map, including Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent.

The more recent fragmentation of the TV audience means that virtually no scripted programs, even on broadcast, attract audiences the size of those 15 or 20 years ago. This means that content creators no longer feel as much pressure to create shows that will appeal to everyone, and they increasingly aim for programming that will appeal to niche audiences and perhaps break out beyond that.

The TV Academy recognized many such comedies with nominations this season — and overlooked plenty of others, including a massively acclaimed series about young black women (HBO’s Insecure); a sitcom in which one of the main characters is — and is played by — a person with cerebral palsy (ABC’s Speechless); and a show about gender (Amazon’s I Love Dick).

When it comes to diversity on TV, it seems like comedies are getting the last laugh.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Susan Sarandon, More Top Actresses on Character Misconceptions, Strange Fan Interactions


Colleen Hayes/FX

HAVE VIEWERS MADE ASSUMPTIONS THAT YOU AND YOUR CHARACTER ARE THE SAME PERSON?

Yeah, and rightfully so. [Better Things] has all the bones of my life. I’m able to live out situations — “I should have done that,” “What if I said that?” — and do this extension of reality and infuse it into my show. It’s a very satisfying creative release.

YOU ALSO WRITE, PRODUCE AND DIRECT, REQUIRING YOU TO WATCH YOURSELF ACT. WHAT’S THAT LIKE?

If I’m on the set and I’m watching playback, I’ve just got to say, “Oh, God, my neck looks 100 years old, but this is the best take.” I have to separate myself from “me” and look at my show as a whole.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AS AN ACTRESS?

I just like to keep things small and subtle and authentic and ground everything in reality. So that is something that I feel is my strength as a director, and I try to achieve that as an actor.

AND HAS THAT COME NATURALLY, SINCE THIS IS YOUR FIRST TIME WEARING ALL THESE HATS?

Unbelievably enough, it feels like a second skin. Being a single mom and raising three girls, it’s almost easier. My daughters don’t listen to me, but all these other people have to.

Click here to read Adlon’s full Q&A.



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Jessica Lange on Exposing the "Other Side" of Joan Crawford in 'Feud'


The two-time Oscar winner talks about her experience researching, and playing, the famed actress.

Over her 55-year career, Joan Crawford starred in nearly 100 films and saw her many marriages and romances splashed across various magazines and gossip columns. However, Jessica Lange says there was still “a whole other side” to the famed actress that she wanted to examine when she stepped into the role of Crawford for Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan.

“I think she was an extremely kind, considerate friend to people, and I’m not sure people think of her that way,” Lange tells The Hollywood Reporter. “People, when they think of Joan Crawford, they think of Mommie Dearest.”

Lange uncovered this softer side of Crawford while doing extensive research for the series, which she also exec produced.

Lange calls playing Crawford one of her favorite roles in recent memory. “I loved playing that character, and I also feel like it was one of the biggest, most complete characters I’ve played in a long, long, long time,” she says.

Her nomination for Feud, for best actress in a limited series or movie, is her eighth Emmy nod overall. The actress has won three times before, twice for Murphy’s American Horror Story, in addition to her two Oscars.

Lange talked to THR about the biggest surprise during her research on Crawford, pushing against those Mommie Dearest preconceptions and what’s next after Feud. (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the passing of Sam Shepard.)

Looking back at Feud, what surprised you the most about how the show and how your character was received?

Well, what I think surprised me in doing it and then in putting it together and then the release of it was what a big character she was, and how huge she was for me, emotionally, to play. Again, the greatest thing is when you play a part like that, you hope it comes across, and I think the way the story was told and filmed and everything, that it was what I had hoped it would be when I was doing it, if that makes any sense. Sometimes you do a part and then it feels dimensioned in a way when you’re done with it. That could just be an actor’s delusion, but you think you’re doing more than you are but somewhere along the process, it isn’t what you had hoped it would be or it wasn’t what you anticipated or it wasn’t even what you thought you had done, but this was everything and more.

Looking at Joan specifically, what would you say was the biggest misconception about your character?

Well, I don’t think people take into consideration what a really — everybody that I knew that met her, everything that I knew that I read — what an extremely good friend she was to people, and how attentive she was to their needs and to what was going on in their life. I was just moved by the fact that she always took time to like write a note or to inquire about somebody. Granted, sometimes you think, “Was it just over-the-top?” But I think she was an extremely kind, considerate friend to people, and I’m not sure people think of her that way. But all the research I did, you kept coming upon that time and time again, how she would look after people if they needed help. One of the problems I do believe is, it would be a terrible thing in anyone’s life to have your history written, or rewritten, after you’re gone and you can’t defend or even present your point of view, your experience. People, when they think of Joan Crawford, they think of Mommie Dearest, and in all my research — and I don’t even want to address that book or that film — but in my experience and the research I did and the people I knew that knew her, there’s a whole other side to her, and that’s what I hope in some way we have been able to explore.

Coming off of such a big role, what do you think you’ll want to do next? What are you looking for to follow up Joan Crawford?

It’s interesting because last year I worked straight through. I did a play for six months playing my favorite character ever written, Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and then went from that into playing Joan Crawford, which was like a great, wonderful surprise, the emotional depth of that character, and now, I don’t really feel like working, to tell you the truth. (Laughs.) There’s nothing that I really want to do right now.



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Tracee Ellis Ross on Hopes for Her 'Black-ish' Character and Potentially Making Emmy History


“Being nominated for an Emmy both last year and this year ringing in the historical context of how long it’s been since a black woman has won,” the actress tells THR.

In January, Tracee Ellis Ross was the first black actress in 34 years to win a Golden Globe for best actress in a TV comedy or musical.

Now she’s hoping for gold and to redefine history again, this time with an Emmy. And It has been 36 years since a black actress has won an Emmy in the category. The last star to take home a win was The Jeffersons lead Isabel Sanford in 1981.

Ross tells The Hollywood Reporter, “Being nominated for an Emmy both last year and this year ringing in the historical context of how long it’s been since a black woman has won since Isabel Sanford I am reminded of the shoulders that I stand on and the shoulders that I stand with.”

Opening up further, the actress who plays Bow on ABC’s hit sitcom Black-ish talks to THR about wanting to write for the show, what she has learned from the character and more. 

Congratulations on your second Emmy nomination. What does it mean to you to be nominated this year? 

Being nominated for an Emmy both last year and this year — ringing in the historical context of how long it’s been since a black woman has won, since Isabel Sanford — I am reminded of the shoulders that I stand on and the shoulders that I stand with. I don’t believe that it is just mine. It is a lot of people’s and a collective nomination for many.

Where do you want to see Bow in season four?

I’d really love Bow to get some friends. (Laughs.) It’s hilarious when I say that because she really doesn’t have any friends. We have amazing writers and it’s always like Christmas when I get a new script. I never really know how it’s going to unfold. I found out she was pregnant when I got the script. It’s nice that way. They clearly do a wonderful job and I’m excited to see what unfolds for Bow this season. Me and the writers have had a lot of synergy from the beginning so it doesn’t feel weird or bad. It’s just the way it is on our show.

As an actress, do you like being kept in the dark about your character?

Sometimes I do have input. We talk and interact a lot. For the, “Being Bow-Racial” episode there was one section of the story that they were really getting friction on in the room. They couldn’t land on what they wanted it to be and they brought me in and we just talked about what my experience was as a mixed woman growing up. They didn’t write my story, but the incorporated pieces of it. But in terms of pitching stories that’s the brilliance of our writers. It’s different on every project. On Girlfriends I was much more aware of what was coming.

Would you want to write or direct an episode?

I would love to pitch stories. Maybe that would happen on our show. Not necessarily direct that would be very tough with the schedule we keep and the amount of scenes that I’m in, but I do think writing an episode is something I would love one day. I have a point of view in life and I like to use it. I have a particular point of view and a vantage point about being a woman and what that means and the stories I like being told about being a woman of color, about being a black woman in this country right now and what that means. Oftentimes that overlaps with our stories and I get to incorporate thoughts and opinions I have.

Black-ish creator and showrunner Kenya Barris opened up about being disappointed about not getting an Emmy nomination for the “Election” episode.

I understand that. Kenya is a wonderful writer and the actual scripts he has written really define the identity of our show and have really given the Black-ish DNA its imprints. I also understand that as an artist. We work really hard. Although awards don’t mean everything, they are a part of the dance and the game that we’re in. They do have an impact in terms of the business of the business. And it’s also really fun to win! It’s really fun to be acknowledged! It’s like being in school and getting picked for the dodge ball team. It’s like your birthday, you want people to buy you a gift. (Laughs.)

What have you learned the most from playing Bow?

I’m not married in real life. I’m not the same woman as Bow and so I’ve had to explore areas and parts of myself that have been really interesting and has helped me feel even fuller as a person. I have not yet been pregnant and had a child. and who knows if that experience will come up for me or not, but I got to experience it on Black-ish. I got to give birth! (Laughs.)



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Emmys Flashback: 'Kate & Allie' Made a Winning Pair During the '80s


“Three decades have passed, and it’s still rare for network execs to see there’s a huge audience hungry for shows about women expressly for women,” says the show’s creator, Sherry Coben.

The Emmys occasionally have shown a soft spot for female buddy shows. The classic case would be CBS’ police procedural Cagney & Lacey, which aired from 1982 to 1988.

One of the show’s two leads, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, took home the lead actress in a drama series award for six years straight. Fast-forward to 2015, and a sitcom example would be Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.

In 2016, Lily Tomlin was nominated, and this year, both she and co-star Jane Fonda are in the running for lead actress in a comedy series. That pairing harkens to another sitcom named for its two lead divorcees: Kate & Allie.

The CBS show starring Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin aired from 1984 to 1989. The Hollywood Reporter‘s first take was less than positive. “We must admit there was a time or two when we even laughed out loud,” said the reviewer, “but not enough to make it worth our time.” But the show was a ratings blockbuster out of the gate. Curtin went on to win two Emmys for lead actress in a comedy series, while Saint James was nominated three times in the same category.

“Three decades have passed, and it’s still rare for network execs to see there’s a huge audience hungry for shows about women expressly for women,” says Kate & Allie creator Sherry Coben. “You can count on two hands the number of female-driven shows since. I’d hoped to set more of a trend.” 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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'Feud' EP on the "Intimate Moment" Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon Became Bette and Joan


“There were never any other names we considered,” says Tim Minear as he and producers behind four other Emmy-nominated limited series reveal how they landed the right stars for the story.

Earning a limited series Emmy nomination this past season was no easy feat. It helped to have a pair of battling brothers who make Cain and Abel seem like the Hemsworth boys. Two doyennes of the silver screen also came in handy, as did a bunch of well-to-do liars, some theoretical physicists and a group of complex convicts.

But to make those characters leap off the screen, it took a boatload of exceptional acting performances, the kind that garnered Emmy nominations of their own. The five limited series nominees — Fargo, Feud, Big Little Lies, Genius and The Night Of — earned nearly all of the limited series/TV movie acting noms this year, including for all of their leads.

The showrunners certainly appreciate this embarrassment of riches. Fargo‘s Noah Hawley jokes of his stellar cast this season, which included nominees Ewan McGregor (a BAFTA winner and Golden Globe nominee) and acclaimed breakout Carrie Coon, “We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t we?”

Adds Feud executive producer Tim Minear: “Our cast was the gift that kept on giving. We all had to realize what a rare opportunity we were getting.” The FX drama, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, clinched six acting noms alone — two for the leads and four for supporting players Stanley Tucci, Judy Davis, Alfred Molina and Jackie Hoffman.

“We knew we wanted Jessica because we have many years of experience with her, courtesy of American Horror Story, but if [creator] Ryan Murphy couldn’t get Susan, we may not ever have done Feud,” says Minear. “There were never any other names we considered. Was it fate that brought them to us for this? I do know that if you took one of them out, it wouldn’t be what it was.”

Murphy had recruited his central stars even before he had a script to show them. In fact, the other nominated actors in the series also signed on even as Murphy, Minear and the writing staff were piecing the story together. A useful side effect was that Sarandon and Lange had a lot of time to immerse themselves in Davis and Crawford. “They 100 percent took these parts very personally,” says Minear.

The result? During a particularly long, talky scene in the third episode, in which Davis and Crawford are having a drink together and Crawford casually talks about losing her virginity to her stepfather at age 12, the producer stopped seeing the actresses. “It really was Bette and Joan; it felt like an intimate moment that was happening in front of us. It was one of a million moments where they could both say something just with their eyes.”

Genius executive producer Ken Biller had a much different experience on National Geographic’s Albert Einstein biographical series, in that he had to start the project picturing anyone but his Emmy-nominated star, Geoffrey Rush, in the lead role. Along with fellow EPs Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Biller wanted Rush to star as the older version of Einstein, but the actor turned the part down.

“He’d seemed so interested at first,” says Biller. “We looked into it and discovered Geoffrey was technically available, but being such a perfectionist and taking on an iconic personality like this, he felt he wouldn’t have enough time to prepare in the way he wanted. Ron was going to direct that first episode, and he was also on a tight schedule, but then we thought, if we could rearrange the schedule and shoot the younger Einstein scenes with actor Johnny Flynn first, that would give Geoffrey a month or so to get ready to go.”

The rejiggered schedule didn’t leave much time to shoot the limited series, but it did afford Rush the chance to meticulously work through his personal process for becoming, rather than just impersonating, the physicist. Biller is still in awe of how his star would present him with all kinds of suggestions, right down to the type of pipe Einstein would smoke or what watch he would wear. Every step of the way, he says, “it was impressive how genuinely collaborative Geoffrey was. He wanted us to discover together what the best choices for the character were.”

McGregor pulled off a slightly different disappearing act, becoming not one but two characters — brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy — in FX’s Fargo. Hawley hadn’t written his first script with McGregor in mind, but after an initial phone call to suss out the actor’s interest, he became the only person Hawley went after, especially because of one particularly hairy situation he was grappling with early on.

“When I heard Ewan was willing to shave his head, it made all the difference,” says Hawley. “He was going to have to make a physical transformation to play two different people, so that gave us leeway for the look of both. Ray would be balding, and we could create a wig for Emmit. That suggested neither brother looked like the other, and he liked that.”

Fargo‘s other Emmy-nominated actors — Coon and David Thewlis — may not have undergone drastic physical transformations, but their characters did experience unique and challenging developments. Coon’s Minnesotan police chief, Gloria Burgle, took what Hawley says was “a weird, existential romp” in Los Angeles in the third episode. Meanwhile, Thewlis was a villain who suffered from bulimia, among other idiosyncratic characteristics.

“It’s rare for any movie to offer that much of a range for any actor to play,” explains Hawley. “Actors often call me six months or a year after being on the show to say they felt spoiled on Fargo. It’s hard to go back to just being the usual hero or villain.”

HBO’s Big Little Lies was a bit reverse-engineered, in the sense that its Emmy-nominated stars, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, first acquired the rights to Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel and boarded as producers. They then engaged David E. Kelley to come on as writer-showrunner and Jean-Marc Vallee as director.

Once Kelley started, he was immediately struck by the “honesty and intelligence” his leads were bringing to their roles as seemingly happy housewives who harbor some dark secrets. Along with fellow nominees Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Alexander Skarsgard, Kidman and Witherspoon “did their own research … this was a very professional and committed ensemble, which set a high bar for everyone.”

The end result, according to Kelley, was a display of “utter humanity” that each character projected, including Skarsgard’s abusive husband, Perry. “The monster that Perry was, Alex still made him human and vulnerable. He managed to evoke sympathy,” says Kelley. “I even felt a little bad for him when Celeste [Kidman] smashed his urethra. I got over it.”

HBO’s other Emmy-nominated limited series, The Night Of, didn’t have as assured a start as Lies. A pilot actually had been shot in 2012 featuring the late James Gandolfini in a lead role. After the actor’s death from a sudden heart attack in 2013, it took several years for co-showrunner Steven Zaillian to revive and recast the eight-episode series.

After seeing the original pilot, Emmy nominee John Turturro signed on to play Gandolfini’s role of John Stone, an attorney working with a young Muslim man, Naz (Riz Ahmed, also nominated), sent to prison on Rikers Island in New York. Ahmed didn’t come on board until very late in preproduction and had only read the first script when shooting started. All of this uncertainty might explain why Zaillian was a bit nervous about how The Night Of was going to play out, until he saw Turturro, Ahmed and the series’ two other nominees, Bill Camp and Michael Kenneth Williams, working together.

“It isn’t until you see the characters with each other that you know if the choices in casting, in terms of chemistry, were right,” says Zaillian. “Since we shot in sequence, those scenes when Detective Box [Camp] first questions Naz in the interview room, when Stone first talks to Naz in the precinct holding cell, and when Freddy [Williams], in his Rikers cell, compares Naz to a baby lamb in a dark crate — I was very pleased as we were shooting those scenes to see who Naz was to each of them and who they were to him. All of the cast brought the things to their parts that all great actors do — skill, dedication, themselves, who they are as people and their life experiences. The writing was right for them, and they were right for the writing.”

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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Vanessa Bayer on Why She Left 'SNL' and the Sketch That Never Made It to Air


The Emmy-nominated actress known for characters like the Bar Mitzvah Boy and an early-‘Friends’ Rachel Green reveals the character viewers almost didn’t get to see and what she stole from the Studio 8H set.

Fans of Vanessa Bayer’s most memorable SNL characters — Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, a naughty Christmas elf, an uncanny early-Friends Rachel Green, and chirpy, confusing weather lady Dawn Lazarus — bid farewell to all of them when Bayer retired from the sketch show in May.

Ending her run after seven seasons wasn’t the easiest decision — she was seen crying during her last curtain call. But the heartache came with a silver lining in the form of her first-ever Emmy nomination, in the supporting actress in a comedy category (she’s up against castmates Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones).

“It meant so much to be nominated for my last year,” she says. Bayer recently spoke with THR about life in and outside Studio 8H.

You scored your first Emmy nomination for your last year on SNL. What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated?

SNL was my home for seven years and it was such an adventure being there. Being given this honor on my way out is so flattering. I was very emotional when I found out I was nominated.

Did you cry?

Yes! I shook, I cried and had a lot of physical reactions to it. (Laughs.)

Why did you decide to leave SNL?

It felt like it was time for me. I had seven seasons and just felt like it was time for someone else to do that job.

What were the most memorable reactions from the cast when they heard you were leaving?

Colin [Jost] wrote this goodbye sketch for the people who were leaving. He wrote this song, and all the details he put in it were about me talking about my sketch group from college and how I bring my brother and best friend to every show. I didn’t realize he knew me so well. You make such close friends there.

What was the song called? 

He did it to, “Always a Woman” by Billy Joel. 

What did your wrap party look like?

We have this writers’ party at the end of the season that’s just for people who work at the show. I usually don’t stay that late, but I stayed until 4 a.m. and was one of the last people there. I was dancing a lot. I discovered a new way I like to dance that is like marching. You should try it. I was marching around a lot. I was like, “I’m going to keep this party going as long as I can.” (Laughs.)

Did you steal any memorabilia from the SNL set?

It’s funny that you ask because I just picked up the Super Bowl woman’s activity pack. We did these Super Bowl commercials [for a sketch], and every year there was a different twist on it. The first year it was this woman’s activity pack for women to have something to do during the Super Bowl. Bobby [Moynihan] found it and saved it for me. I just got it framed. I also have the Nuva Bling; a few years ago we did this commercial for Nuva Bling, which is a blinged-out Nuva Ring. One time I did a Miley Cyrus sketch, and I had this puppet named Smiley that looked like Miley. I have that puppet.

Are there any secrets you want to reveal about the show?

Something that never got on [the show] was that I would try to write these backstage sketches where I would go into the host’s dressing room and be really scary and aggressive to them because that’s not my personality. I’d say, “Hey, don’t step on my lines.” I thought it would be funny that onscreen I’m really smiley, but behind the scenes everyone is really scared of me. It never got on because I think even me pretending to be scary is sweet and silly.

Which host did you want to do that to?

The first time we tried it was with Jeff Bridges because he’s a full, big and strong adult man and it would be me saying, “Jeff, don’t mess with me.” It would also be fun to do with Dwayne Johnson. 

Which of your characters is your favorite?

The bar mitzvah boy Jacob. He feels the closest to my personality. The shyness and awkwardness is at the core of me. I went to bar and bat mitzvahs every weekend when I was in seventh grade, so I was basing this off of all these boys who were way too young to be doing something so formal and were acting so weird. A lot of my friends who have seen it and know my brother are like, “Oh, you’re doing an impression of him.”

What was the dynamic like between you and Jennifer Aniston when you played Rachel Green alongside her?

Sometimes you don’t want to meet the people that you love so much, but she is the best. For the sketch her hair stylist Chris McMillian came and was also styling my wig. I have a video of him having to pull my hair back because it was very ’90s to have this part flipped forward. As someone who is a superfan of Friends, getting to do Rachel with her was a dream come true. 

In your everyday life do you ever break into character?

Not unless I’m prompted.

How often do you get prompted?

A fair amount. (Laughs.)

Is there a character that viewers almost didn’t get to see?

We tried [a] meteorologist in a couple of other sketches, like as a game show host earlier in the season, and it got cut twice. And then we wrote it as the weather lady, and it still didn’t get on. Colin said, “You should try it as a Weekend Update feature.” Literally, I had three shows left, and I was like, “OK, we’ll try it,” and we did. I started it in January; we thought that was one that was never going to get on.

You appeared alongside now president Donald Trump when he hosted during the election. What were the conversations onset like that day?

We were all like, “Is he really running for president?” At that time I thought of him more as the host of The Apprentice. I remember he also could only be on TV for a certain amount of time because there were some rules about that. It was very bizarre.

You never got to play someone in his administration. Did you want to stay away from that?

I got to play one of the reporters when Melissa McCarthy played Sean Spicer. She was so unpredictable and had such good comedic instincts. You would think, “She is going to hit me,” and then for the live show she’d throw something at you. (Laughs.) You didn’t know how it was going to happen. 

Which castmember do you consider a role model?

When I got to the show, Kristen Wiig was there. Just getting to watch her work was always so cool. It was so educational and inspiring. I was there with her for two seasons and felt so lucky that I got that much time with her.

Did she give you any advice about life post-SNL?

I’m friends with her and [former castmember] Fred Armisen. The thing that’s really nice about the show from the very first day is that everyone is so open with their advice. When you start there, a lot of people haven’t been in this industry before. From day one, everyone gets advice. People will tell you, “Don’t Google yourself. Get rest.” That definitely continues once you leave.

What’s next for you and what are you looking forward to most about your days post SNL?

I’m about to work on the film Ibiza in Eastern Europe and I’m really looking forward to exploring new projects and hopefully getting some sleep? 

A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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